‘Our greatest resource is our youth’: David Cutcliffe shares inspirational message to Oak Mountain staff

Published 2:13 pm Monday, February 20, 2023

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By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

NORTH SHELBY – While the kids were out of school on Monday, Feb. 20, the staff at Oak Mountain High School got a treat when a legendary college football coach and Alabama Sports Hall of Fame Member made his way into the Performing Arts Center.

In front of the school’s teachers, other staff and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dr. Lewis Brooks, former Ole Miss and Duke head football coach David Cutcliffe address the full auditorium about the importance of their daily duties as teachers as part of the school’s professional development day.

“I think about the title of teacher,” Cutcliffe said early in his speech. “Teacher is a pretty awesome title. When you read the Bible, how often does Jesus refer to his teachings? What an amazing responsibility you all have. In my opinion, the most critical responsibility falls on us as teachers. That’s where it all lies, that’s where the future lies. A great teacher or coach inspires learning. I’m not interested in what you know, I’m interested in what our players and students learn. That’s the only functional part of what we all do. How do you become an inspirational teacher? It’s through your relationships.”

Cutcliffe, a native of Birmingham and graduate of Banks Academy, got his coaching start as the head coach of Banks at age 23, beginning a life dedicated to coaching and teaching young students and athletes.

He went on to spend more than 20 years leading Ole Miss in the SEC, helping them win 10 games for the first time in 32 years and earning the title of SEC Coach of the Year in 2003.

He then went to Duke, where he spent several years and ended an 18-year bowl drought, eventually earning back-to-back ACC Coach of the Year titles in 2012 and 2013.

And along the way, he never stopped learning lessons that still inspire him today, and now he hopes inspires educators.

“Duke, day one, they had won 10 games in the previous eight years,” Cutcliffe said. “Everybody thought I lost my mind when I took that job, and I probably had, but day one, I planned the recruiting trip of all recruiting trips. I had six cities and five flights and started in Miami, Florida.”

A day that started at 4:30 a.m. with his usual bowl of oatmeal, Cutcliffe shared his journey that featured a trip to Waffle House near midnight and even more chaotic adventures after.

It all led to one discovery.

“Nothing we say or do is going to happen unless we are motivated,” he said. “If you aren’t motivated, if you aren’t happy about where you are on a daily basis, you’re not good enough. That was our first lesson at Duke. If you’re not happy about being here, there is no chance you’re going to win anything.”

Cutcliffe said that is one of the most important things about being a leader and teacher because the students can tell if you aren’t bough in 100 percent.

“It’s all about trust and love,” he said. “If you don’t love them, they know it. If they don’t trust you, there is no relationship. One of the things we coined as a staff was, ‘Say what you mean and mean what you say.’ I told them to not say they were going to play somebody if they weren’t going to do it. I also told them to not tell somebody to get off the ground and them not do it.”

That story was one that stuck out to Oak Mountain High School Principal Andrew Gunn, who told his staff after how important it is to buy into the students.

“We can talk instructional practice, we can talk data, we can talk everything until we are blue in the face, but if those 26, 27, 28 kids in your classroom don’t believe that you love them and don’t believe that you care about them and are invested in their success, they will spot it,” Gunn said. “They will spot a phony, they will spot it when you are indifferent, and you can be doing all the other things in the world, but if they don’t feel like you care about them and care about their success going forward, then you’re not going to reach them and impact them moving forward.”

Cutcliffe said the first two pieces of advice he was given after becoming a coach came from former Ramsay coach Mutt Reynolds, who called to congratulate him and said, “There is no bigger fool on earth than one who thinks they can fool a young person. You be genuine and you be yourself. I don’t want to see you with your chest stuck out when you’re winning or your head hung when you’re losing. This isn’t about you, it’s about them.’ He said, ‘If you’ll do those two things, I don’t know if you’ll be worth a dang, but you’ll last.’ Well, by gosh, I lasted.”

He tied that into teaching, saying it’s not about ego, it’s about the legacy you leave as a teacher.

“Leave people better than you found them,” Cutcliffe said. “My high school physics teacher still plays a role with me every day. I was headed toward trouble with my brother getting killed and my dad dying in a wreck. I thought life was unfair until I saw this physics formula: P equals W over T. Power equals work over time. I thought everyone else had an advantage until I saw that. The only constant in that formula is time. My hour and your hour are identical. What am I going to do with that hour is the question.”

He added that if teachers can get students to react to their mistakes like touching a hot stove, then that can make all the difference.

“I got tired of people telling me when you get knocked down, you have to get back up. Tell me something obvious why don’t you,” he said. “But the hot stove changed his perspective. When you touch a hot stove, you immediately jump back. When you get knocked down, use that term hot stove. When you get a bad grade, treat it like a hot stove. You can do something about it, not just by getting back up, but by treating it like a hot stove and being the first one back up.”

Cutcliffe closed by thanking the teachers for their hard work during a unique time to be a teacher.

“God bless you all,” he said. “I am not a teacher in this era. I know it’s harder. I know that you are underpaid—sorry superintendent—you are. God bless you. For us to be great, and for the community to be great, our greatest resource is our youth. We have to continue to fight that fight. Community, by community, by community, we can grow through education. I praise you and I appreciate you so very much. I wish you all the best.”